Tag Archives: utilitarianism

Choose pain-free utilitarianism

Some of my friends are hedonic utilitarians, or close human approximations (people whose excuse to talk excitedly in bars and on the internet is sometimes hedonic utilitarianism). I am a preference utilitarian, so I would like to talk excitedly on the internet about how they are wrong.

Robert Wiblin sums up a big motivation for hedonic utilitarianism:

“I am hedonic rather than a preference utilitarian because if I were aware of a being that wanted things but had no experiences I would not care about it as its welfare could not be affected”

Something like this seems a common reason. What makes a thing good or bad if not someone experiencing it as good or bad? And how can you consciously experience something as good or bad if it’s not some variation on pleasure and pain? If your wanting chocolate isn’t backed by being pleased by chocolate, why would I want you to have chocolate more than I would want any old unconscious chocolate-getting mechanism to have chocolate? Pleasure and pain are the distinctive qualia that connect normativeness to consciousness and make it all worthwhile.

This must be wrong. Pain at least can have no such importance, as empirically it can be decomposed into a sensation and a desire to not have the sensation. This is demonstrated by the medical condition pain asymbolia and by the effects of morphine for example. In both cases people say that they can still feel the sensation of the pain they had, but they no longer care about it.

To say that the sensation of pain is inherently bad then is no different than to say that the sensation of seeing the color red is inherently bad.  The leftover contender for making pain bad is the preference not to have pain. You may still care only about the sensation of having or fulfilling a preference, and not about preferences that are fulfilled outside of knowledge. The feeling of preferring could still be that sought after sensation inherently imbued with goodness or badness. It must be some variation on preferences though; hedonism’s values are built of them.